Saturday, November 22, 2003

On the line: Everything


Is Big Ten, national title in play? Must be time for OSU-Michigan

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Jim Tressel was asked this week if today's game against Michigan is the biggest he had coached at Ohio State.

It's not. There was the little matter of a national championship game 10 months ago. Yet to their credit, Tressel and the assembled scribes at his news conference didn't do a double-take at the dim-witted query.

It's easy to forget on days like this there is anything bigger than Ohio State-Michigan. The rivalry, voted the best in sports in an ESPN.com fan poll, stages its 100th meeting today before an expected NCAA-record crowd of 112,000 in Michigan Stadium.

This one couldn't be bigger, as a victory would give fourth-ranked OSU (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) its first outright league title since 1984.

It also would mark three straight series victories for OSU for the first time since winning four in a row from 1960-63. It could propel the Buckeyes into the Sugar Bowl for a chance to repeat as national champions.

"If you can't get amped for this," OSU offensive lineman Adrien Clarke said, "you're not human."

The fifth-ranked Wolverines (9-2, 6-1) could claim the outright Big Ten crown and earn their first Rose Bowl berth in six years - if not rejoining the Sugar Bowl chase themselves.

"It's a defining moment for our team," Michigan offensive lineman Tony Pape said.

OSU's has been a season of survival - overcoming the Maurice Clarett saga, injuries, offensive woes and a crippling loss to Wisconsin - to keep its title hopes alive. "The way we've been able to persevere ... is an amazing thing," tight end Ben Hartsock said.

Yet the resiliency might be even more pronounced for Michigan. It lost back-to-back games at Oregon and Iowa, then had to rally from 21 points down in the fourth quarter at Minnesota to avoid a third consecutive loss. Since then, it has been dominant.

"Any time you get knocked down, you find out what you're made of," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.

The Wolverines lead this series 56-37-6, but the rivalry is even at 25-25-2 the past 52 years. Michigan's dominance over previous OSU coach John Cooper - going 10-2-1 - is ancient history.

Its players are still smarting from losing the last two, including a 14-9 setback last fall that could have derailed the Buckeyes' title train.

Michigan is a different team here, having won its six home games by an average score of 42-7. Yet OSU's upperclassmen remember their 2001 win, which broke a 14-year drought in Ann Arbor.

"We're not scared to go up there," OSU senior linebacker Robert Reynolds said.

Michigan has ideal balance on offense, led by Big Ten rushing leader Chris Perry (1,435 yards) and the league's No. 2 passer in John Navarre (2,782 yards).

Perry will test the nation's top rushing defense. OSU has allowed an average of 50.5 rushing yards, including just 33 yards per game in its last four outings.

"It doesn't matter what type of running back you have," OSU defensive tackle Darrion Scott said. "If you're going up against the guy across from you ... destroying him and throwing him away, where can the back go?"

OSU's ball-control offense is more suited to playing with a lead, so the Buckeyes could struggle if they fall behind and must pass.

There was no update Friday about the playing status of starting wide receiver Santonio Holmes and kick returner Troy Smith, whom OSU said it will discipline for their role in a fight early Sunday.

If Holmes doesn't play, that coupled with the season-ending injury to Drew Carter, would leave OSU thin at receiver. Yet OSU has won before in similar straits.

"This senior class has accomplished a lot the last few years," OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel said. "But we'll be remembered by what happens (today)."

No. 4 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan

Kickoff: 12:10 p.m. today, Michigan Stadium (107,501), Ann Arbor, Mich.

Records: OSU 10-1 (6-1 Big Ten), UM 9-2 (6-1).

TV: Ch. 9, 2.

Radio: WBOB-AM (1160), WPFB-AM (910).

Series: UM leads 56-37-6.

Line: UM by 7.

What to watch: OSU could use a career game from RB Lydell Ross, who has averaged 120.3 rushing yards the past four weeks, to chew clock and keep Michigan's high-octane offense idling. OSU's linebackers will have to guess when to crash the line and when to drop back into coverage.

OSU Team stats UM
327.1Offense avg.458.1
130.6Avg. by rush188.0
196.5Avg. by pass270.1
275.7Defense avg.279.1
50.5Avg. by rush126.7
225.2Avg. by pass152.4
24.2Avg. pts. for37.4
15.1Avg. pts. against15.5

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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